To dam or not to dam.

The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council assures us that if the Makaroro dam is built, Ruataniwha Plains farmers will shift to ‘best farming practices’ and the environment and the economy will benefit. What are these better practices which they say only the top 20% of farmers have adopted?

Things get squirrely fast when you ask farming experts to define ‘best farming practice’. For dairying you hear things like, ‘Fence off the streams, be sustainable’. For sheep and beef they tend to say, ‘Try to avoid worm drench resistance’ or ‘Keep your grass covers higher’. For cropping it’s along the lines of, ‘Reduce tillage and control spray drift’.

Phyllis Tichinin, soil champion

So is this the best we’re capable of? It’s pretty limp wristed. Are these ‘best practices’ actually delivering the rich soils, clean water and tasty, safe food that agriculture is meant to be about? No, they aren’t. Status quo agriculture doesn’t know how to farm to regenerate our environment and be the basis of a healthy, caring civilisation. How have we lost the plot with growing our food?

The Regional Council assumes that with dam water available CHB farmers will become model farmers and their productivity will increase enough to enable them to afford the new water charges. Given the farming intensification and increased borrowing that would be needed, the result will be more of what is happening on farms now – over use of chemicals, soil collapse, water pollution, and mediocre produce.

In one breath we’re saying NZ farmers are the best in the world and in the next everyone acknowledges that the majority of farmers can lift their game substantially. Why haven’t they done that already, given we’ve been on this sustainability/ smart farming jag for well over a decade? It’s because the fertiliser cooperatives’ hearts just aren’t in it, or rather their wallets are very much in it staying the way it is.

So they continue to push high margin fertilisers like urea and super phosphate which we know to be polluting, unbalanced and damaging to beneficial soil microbes. Using these petroleum-dependent fertilisers also results in food that has no flavour, is low in minerals, carries heavy metals and is contaminated with pesticides. It makes for great fertiliser sales figures; it just happens to occur at the expense of our farm productivity, our environment and our health.

And everybody’s OK with this?!

A better course

It is better biological farming practice, not water in itself that will transform our region and our economy. We need the gold standard of regenerative farming – growing humus – to reduce water needs, to use less petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides, and to produce food that truly nourishes and heals. Good farming practice is not simply planting up stream sides, switching drenches, using nitrogen inhibitors to kill soil microbes and no-till programmes.

The solution is fairly simple. First, the major fertiliser company executives need to be reminded that they run cooperatives, charged with safeguarding farmer shareholders’ interests, the most important of which is productive soils based on the growth of humus on their farms. They need to stop pushing the use of neat urea and phosphate since that burns up soil carbon/humus while creating nitrate leachate and poisoning animals.

Second, ag salesmen, consultants and academics need to be sent in for ‘re-grooving’. Their limited, chemical view of agricultural soil management needs to be brought into the 21st century. The cutting edge of agriculture innovation lies in the synergies of calcium and trace elements helping diverse microbiology drive soil humus growth and nutrient-dense food production. Until the current cadre of ag scientists understand that they’re advocating outdated science and a chemical farming paradigm, they’re simply a handbrake on progress. Get with the programme or get off the bus.

Third, to really shift gears quickly, the best thing might be to increase the price of lime by at least ten times from $20 to $200 a tonne. Why do that when the calcium in our cheap lime keeps soil microbes healthy and makes needed trace elements available? Because then lime costs enough for there to be an adequate margin tacked on. How can you encourage salesmen to sell such a crucial ag fertility product if there’s no profit in it for them? Market forces rule, eh?

What we need to get our heads around is that we can farm very productively on a fraction of the inputs and gadgets that fuel the pay and dividend packets of our agricultural mafia. Yes, a mafia – an income protection racket that keeps farmers on the treadmill of increasing fertiliser, pesticide, antibiotic, worm drench, calf meal and bull hormone use. Create a problem by ignoring Mother Nature and then you can sell a costly product to band-aid the problem, and then another to compensate for the problem that creates, and so on and so on.

It doesn’t have to be this way as farmers employing biological soil principles in Hawkes Bay are finding to their delight and relief.

It is possible for dairies to use 50% less urea, grow more grass and make 25% more profit. It is possible to grow more fruit and vegetables of better flavour and better shelf life but with fewer pesticides while improving soil condition. But it requires a paradigm shift from our current simple, chemical input, view of farming.

Love your microbes

The entire industry needs to realise that agriculture is based on the marvellous complexity of soil microbes. This wonderfully generous population governs all aspects of our ecosystem – the carbon cycle, water quality, plant growth, the digestion of everything and the very existence of life. It’s a powerful community worth befriending and honouring, as best we can.

So what’s the difference between average Central Hawke’s Bay farming and real best-practice smart microbe farming? What needs to shift? Of course there’s more science driven technique behind it than this, but basically farmers need to:

  • Apply humated lime and trace elements to get minerals better balanced and available to their plants. Drive the farm with calcium.
  • Love their soil microbes. Make microbe care and feeding their top priority in farming because microbes run the show.
  • Reduce fertiliser use. Over-fertilising harms soil microbes, burns up humus and makes the pest problems worse.
  • Join ‘Pestanon’ and kick the pesticide addiction.

Best practice means learning how soil actually works, changing to microbe friendly farm inputs, focusing on growing healthy roots and embracing direct responsibility to create mineral-dense food that nourishes and heals. And better use of water in the process.

Humus – dark, rich, stable soil carbon – enhances nutrient availability, keeps soils soft and absorbent and stores surprising amounts of water.

For every 1% increase in soil humus, an extra 17 litres of water can be stored in each square metre of farm land. This is 168,000 additional litres of water per hectare or approximately one and a half acre inches of water.

CHB dairies were able to increase their soil carbon content on average 0.75% soil carbon after only 14 months on a biological programme. Some of those farms increased their soil carbon by as much as 3-4% in that time. Within a decade CHB dairy farms could be holding more than an acre foot of additional water in their soils. It is estimated that every litre of milk requires five litres of water to produce it.

Given how precious water is we have to do better and humus creation is the way. The best and the cheapest form of water storage for agriculture is in the soil itself, through humus.

We have the understanding, and opportunity, to intelligently protect and actually regenerate the soil, while improving human health. The pressure for change must come from us as consumers. We dictate farm practices by how we spend our dollars on food. NZ farmers do respond to pressure from foreign markets. They will also respond to pressure from NZers.

It’s all connected … the nourishment and health of our soil microbes, the nutrient value of our food and in turn our wellness, atmospheric CO2 levels, water use, petrochemical use, prescription use, and our mental health. All of these fundamental issues revolve around the wellbeing of our soil.

So let’s move on to genuine ‘best practice’.

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